Science Transparency Policy Swathed In Secrecy

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Email: info@peer.org

Science Transparency Policy Swathed In Secrecy

White House Withholds All But Snippets on Why Science Guidance Went Off Course

WASHINGTON - The White House has decided to withhold the vast majority of
documents explaining why its science integrity and transparency policies
are more than 18 months behind schedule and why the final four-page
guidance to agencies failed to address or clarify a raft of issues,
according to materials posted today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The tiny fragments the White House
did release in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought
by PEER do not even identify what topics were the subject of such
prolonged internal wrangling.

Early in his administration, President Obama issued a directive on
implementing six sweeping scientific integrity and transparency
policies.  He directed the White House Office of Science and Technology
(OSTP) to develop guidance for all agencies by July 2009.  After months
of delay and missed target dates, in October 2010 PEER filed a federal
lawsuit against OSTP for its failure to release any documents about the
status of the guidance.  Finally, last Friday, December 17, OSTP issued
its guidance.  Yesterday, OSTP delivered, via the Justice Department,
fragmentary material representing all “non-exempt records responsive” to
PEER’s request for an explanation of why this very short guidance took
so long to produce.

The vast majority of the 155 pages delivered were blacked out; all of
the meeting notes, progress reports and even congressional testimony
were heavily redacted.  The shreds of text released indicate that OSTP
sent a draft to the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB)
roughly on schedule.  In a weekly OSTP report dated June 29, 2009, the
only released entry read: “OSTP and OMB continue to negotiate a handful
of remaining fine points …With luck a draft will be ready for
consideration by agency Principals by the end of this week.”

By August 4, 2009, the effort was derailed, as OSTP “talking points”
reveal: “Discussions have been taking place at the highest levels at
OSTP, OMB, and other EOP [Executive Office of the President] offices to
resolve these remaining items.  Be assured your efforts have received a
high level of attention with the EOP.”   However, the portion of the
talking points describing the issues in contention was blacked out.  By
October 2009 a version had been kicked back to OSTP where it sat for
weeks.  As one OSTP staff person replied when asked “What is happening
with the Science Integrity memo?”

“We are clearly the bottleneck – not sure we will get a cleared draft before our fearless leader departs for Russia.”

The matter then languished for some months more.  By June 18, 2010,
OSTP Director John Holdren authorized a blog posting assuring that
scientific integrity directives are already in effect, although there
are no enforceable rules.  In approving the entry, Holdren added “I
think it is fine to go – much better than leaving all this crap
unanswered for weeks more.”  But the process still dragged on.   The
next cogent entry is dated July 9, 2010 from Holdren reading: “On
Thursday this week, culmination of a lengthy and thorough multi-agency
process, OSTP and OMB agreed on penultimate language…I should note that
today marks the one-year anniversary of the original deadline for
submission of these recommendations and I anticipate some level of
negative press over the weekend regarding this delay.”   The final
guidance was not issued for more than six months after that.

The snippets of information suggest that the product had to achieve
inter-agency consensus: “OSTP staff are working closely with OMB to
revise the proposed recommendations to the President in a way that is
satisfactory to all.” (emphasis added).  As a result, any participating
agency, such as the Department of Defense, apparently had the power to
block particular guidance.  The need for consensus may explain why the
final product was so vapid and late.

“Given that the guidance states its objective is to ‘strengthen the
actual and perceived credibility of Government research’ how does it hep
to exclude the public, government scientists and the scientific
community from that discussion?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff
Ruch, indicating that his organization would press for release of more
documents through the litigation.  “Today, federal agencies have no
clear guidance or timetable for producing rules and procedures for
implementing the President’s directive.  If the OSTP experience is any
indication, this process will drift for years longer before it finally
implodes from inertia.”

PEER is still seeking information detailing, among other things –

  • What were the thorny issues that dragged out and diluted the OSTP process;
  • Which agencies voiced what specific objections and concerns; and
  • How did OMB affect the drafting of guidance and what role will it continue to play.

The long negotiations with OMB did produce one of the few pellucid
results from the guidance – OMB was declared exempt from integrity and
transparency directives applied to other agencies.

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See the 2009 OSTP documents

Look at the 2010 OSTP documents

View the OSTP guidance finally issued last week

Revisit the PEER lawsuit against OSTP

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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